Bounty Hunter

Bounty Hunter

Brix Ransom, a tall twist of rawhide, stood sipping his beer at the bar next to Dumphy, the trail boss for the Triple X Cattle Company.

I’m headed out in the morning, need to collect my pay.

I won’t have it tomorrow, Dumphy told him.


The paymaster said Tuesday.

Can’t wait ‘til Tuesday. I’m lightin’ out tomorrow for Wyoming.

I wish you’d consider my offer. You’re the best trailhand I ever had and there’s a bonus in it if you ride back to Guthrie with me.

Can’t do it, Dumph. Got things burnin’ a hole in me, gotta see new country, fed up with the dust and smell. Leaves nothin’ but a stink in my stomach.

It’s what ya know, Brix. What ya gonna do in Wyoming?

Rob banks, Brix said with a wry smile. Sure, that’s exactly what I aim to do.

Dumphy looked at Brix. Brix was a man of few words and not one to fuck with. He told Brix he’d have his pay in the morning.

Brix nodded and gulped down the last of his beer and walked out. The sun was blurred by the dust that lingered in the air. Where there’s a cowherd, there’s dust and shit and stink. Brix spit in the dirt. Can’t never get the taste out of your mouth.

He walked along the dusty street to the livery stable. He’d sleep somewhere away from the stink of the town, out there in the prairie grass. Brix never could stomach the noise of town. Unsettled him. Didn’t know why, but the stare of the sky quieted his restless heart. Along with the comfort of a campfire.

Brix rode out far enough he was out of sight of town and stepped down from his horse, unfastened the throat latch and eased the headset from Rusty’s head and hung it on the saddle horn. Undoing the cinch strap, he slid the saddle and blankets off and onto the ground. Rusty dropped his head and began to graze. Brix ran his rough hands across Rusty’s back and patted his neck. A man needs a good horse in big country.

After gathering driftwood, Brix started a fire and filled the coffee pot from the stream nearby, poured in coffee, and set the pot on the blaze. While the water boiled, he spread his bedroll and stretched out. By next week, he’d be in Wyoming, a place he’d never been. There were lots of places he’d never been, but that never stopped him from going. Going, that had a nice ring to it. Never was much for staying.

The coffee was hot and the stars were talking and Brix listened. Far from the noise of town Brix slept hard and woke to the sun. He soon had the fire going and coffee boiling and led Rusty to the fire to comb the rough from his back and throw on the blankets and saddle.

Brix rode into town. It wasn’t hard to find Dumphy.

Sit down, Brix. Have somethin’ to eat.


Are you sure you won’t ride back with me, Brix?

Have my heart set on seeing new territory.

Don’t get yourself killed.

Try not to.

After breakfast, Brix walked with Dumphy to the paymaster’s office, stood there while the paymaster counted out the coins, took his pay from Dumphy without asking him how he was able to manipulate the paymaster, said goodbye, and headed northwest to Colorado and on north across prairie country until he reached the grasslands and on up to Wyoming.

Cheyenne’s stockyards bustled with cattle, a commodity to the traders but flesh and blood to cattlemen. Brix knew the banks held the cattle traders’ rewards. Although he’d never spent much time in a bank, he was savvy and had a good horse. Besides, he was here.

This is what life boiled down to. We are here. Nothing to do about it. Wasn’t our choice, so make the best of it.

Brix rode away from the stockyards until he found a saloon, tied up, and walked inside. It took a minute for his eyes to adjust to the dark. Just another trailhand, no one paid him any attention.

He squeezed in along the long bar and waited. When the bartender finally noticed him, Brix asked for a beer. With thirty dollars in the leather pouch tied to his gunbelt, he felt rich. When the beer came, he took a sip and turned to look around the crowded saloon.

Just come into town with one of the herds?

Brix turned to stare down at the gnarled man next to him, his left eye hid by a patch. Looking down at the man’s left hand sprawled on the bar, Brix noticed the missing little finger. Brix measured the strength of this man. A hard man.

Didn’t come into town with no herd.

Look like a trailhand is all.

Ain’t no trailhand. No ways not with a outfit round here.

What’s your business?

My business is my business, Brix said.

Just tryin’ to be friendly. No harm.

Brix took another sip from his beer.

Fine by me. Done a little bit of trailin’ cattle. Down to Texas and Kansas. Had enough of it. Just travelin’ now. Always liked travelin’ and never been up this way before. Thought I’d take a look.

Not much here but cowherds and cowboys. A few rough types. Leastwise think they’re tough. Aim to stay long?

Nope. Long enough to gather a stake and move on.

A stake? Round here? Good luck with that. Like I said, nothin’ here but cows and hands.

And banks.

Banks? What ya got to do with banks?

They hold the money, don’t they?

That’s right, they hold the money. They don’t take that responsibility lightly. People trust them for a reason.

Maybe. Maybe not.

I guess you got some wild idea ‘bout robbin’ one of ‘em. Better put that notion outta your head. Good way to get yourself killed.

Don’t aim to get myself killed. Just thinkin’ out loud.

Believe me, it don’t pay.

You know?

I gotta lil’ experience, yeah.

How so? You rob a bank?

Nope. Not that stupid. I make my livin’ chasin’ after ‘em. Bank robbers and the sort.

Brix studied the man, wondering just how a man makes a living doing that.

Rewards? Brix asked.

Rewards. Banks don’t take kindly to gettin’ robbed. And they pay big rewards for bringin’ n those that think they can. Not many get away, I’m tellin’ ya straight.

Maybe they didn’t have the right plan.

It don’t matter. Best plan in the world ain’t gonna keep you alive for long. Always someone who’ll out last ya. Someone who has the big advantage of chasin’ instead of being chased. Makes all the difference.

Brix thought about this a moment.

You some kinda bounty hunter?

Yep. Make a pretty good livin’ at it. Don’t have to eat no dust following a damn cowherd neither. Might eat plenty of dust, but not cowdust. And when I get who I’m after, I sleep in a bed and eat a hot meal. Real money. As I said, no one’s chasin’ me.

But let’s suppose a man goes into a bank and takes a thousand dollars and now you’re on his trail. What’s in it for you?

Probly a hunert dollars.

Don’t seem like much for takin’ those risks. Don’t suppose he just throws up his hands and gives up.

Nah, it don’t never happen like that. But like I said before, I’m chasin’, he’s runnin’. And I’ll get him if he ain’t got sooner by someone else.

That brings up another interestin’ question. How many of you out there? Could be a hundred men chasin’ one bank robber. And why ain’t the law doin’ the chasin’?

They got more than they can handle right here. And there’s lots of outlaws to be chased. It just ain’t bank robbers. You have stage and train robbers and just plain ol’ killers. Bad men all of ‘em. There’s plenty of ‘em that needs chasin’, don’t worry ‘bout that. And not many of us chasin’ ‘em. It ain’t as glamorous as you think. Goddamned hard in fact.

Didn’t figure it to be glamorous. Nothin’ in this godforsaken land’s easy. Guess I’d rather be chasin’ one critter than a thousand of ‘em. No percentage in bustin’ trail behind some damn cowherd. At the end of it you collect your thirty dollars. Think of it. Three months fightin’ the cold and heat and dust and nothin’ but sagebrush to look at and beans and pork belly to eat. And coffee that tastes like the dust you’ve been chewing all day.

Bank robbin’ ain’t no picnic neither, let me tell ya. Even if you get outta the bank alive, you got nothin’ to look forward to but runnin’. No rest. Always someone comin’ after ya. No, if you’re lookin’ for glamor and adventure, best go to sea. Ain’t no dust at sea. Dream about the ocean all the time, miles and miles of water and sky. Plan on gettin’ there one day. A man needs a purpose.

How do ya get started? I mean becomin’ a bounty hunter. You need a badge or somethin’?

Nope, all you need is grit. Lots of it. These ain’t lambs you’re chasin’. They’re nasty. Snakes. Ruthless. Ever’ one of ‘em. And they’d just as shoot you as say hello. Desperate men, these are. Bein’ chased does somethin’ to a man. Makes him mean. Like a trapped animal. When he has no way out, he’ll put up a helluva fight. You gotta think like an animal to catch an animal.

I’m interested, sure am. Got nothin’ else.

I’m headed west tomorrow, just learned from the sheriff that three men held up a stage over by Laramie. Killed the driver and both guards. Interested? I could use the company.

Sure, why not? I gotta get my horse some feed and rest. And I could use some myself.

There’s a stable down the road. Clean. He’ll put your horse up for the night. Two bucks. Good feed too. You can find me across the street in the mornin’.

What’s your name?


All right, Twint, I’ll see ya in the mornin’. My name’s Brix.

After Brix left his horse at the livery stable, he checked into the hotel. He hadn’t had a bath since the herd left Guthrie three and a half months ago. Didn’t know why he needed one now, the next few weeks would be more of the same. But on a whim, he soaked in a hot tub for over an hour and afterward went for a shave. Twint might not even recognize him in the morning.

The restaurant at the hotel was crowded with cattle buyers and lawyers. Trailhands from the cowherds crowded into the saloon across the street. Brix looked around. This wasn’t his kind of place, but it felt good to sit down to a meal other than beans and pork belly. His clothes were still covered in the dust and grime of the trail but his skin was washed and his face smooth.

He ordered a beer and a steak just like he belonged, fuck everyone else. His money was earned, not by cheating some poor cattle owner out of his life’s work or standing in front of a toothless judge to plead extenuating circumstances for a reckless cowpuncher who with too much whiskey in his belly shoots up the saloon, rather his money was earned by fighting through dust and thunderstorms and stampedes and days of monotony.

He finished the meal and ordered another beer, listening to the politics of cattle buying and lawyering. Never had time for politics. Men who had too much time on their hands, not men grounded in the land. Had more respect for bank robbers and thieves. They took their lives into their own hands, accepting their destinies, even though the outlook was bleak. They accepted the risks.

Sleep never came easy to Brix, too many lonely nights on the cold ground. Long before sunup he threw his things into his saddlebags and bounded down the stairs and out the door. His breath came in bursts as he hustled to the livery stable. No one was around so he helped himself to the grain barrel and saddled Rusty while Rusty nuzzled the feedbag. He stood in the wide doors of the barn to wait for Rusty to finish the grain, looking out at the eerie glow from the electric arc lights, forsaken on the edge of the empty plains.

He thought about the men who they’d be chasing. Who were they and what were they thinking? They weren’t standing in the doors of a barn in some fancy cowtown waiting to light out. They were holed up somewhere. Waiting. Knowing someone was coming. Someone.

The sun was barely warming their backs as Brix and Twint rode out of Cheyenne toward the mountains to the west. They rode in silence.

After several miles, the blue outline of mountains in the distance, Twint asked Brix if the pit of his stomach was on fire.

Don’t this get you all twisted up inside?

Brix looked back at Twint.

Don’t think about it, Brix said.

Twint shook his head, wondering who this man was? Guessed he could trust him sure enough. A man who don’t have nothing to say must be square, someone he could count on when it came time. Ain’t many like him.

You ain’t told me much about these men we’re chasin’, Brix asked.

Ain’t much to tell. They’re pretty much like any of ‘em. Desperate. Been kicked ‘round their whole life. ‘Til they’re fed up. It ain’t so much about the money as about bein’ fed up. And they lash out. It ain’t no wonder. A man can only take so much before he erupts. You ever been to Yellowstone?

Nope. Spent my time in Arkansas and Texas. Dead country.

They got these geysers in Yellowstone. Steam comin’ outta the ground. An abyss of fire and anger way down in the belly of the earth. Just lookin’ for a chance to explode. That’s what these men are, an anger grumblin’ way down in the pit of their stomachs. Men like that are dangerous. Just thought I’d warn you. They ain’t got nothing to fear anymore.

Brix stared at Twint a long time before he responded.

Guess all of us are a little like that. This ain’t easy country. It’ll stir up the bile in your stomach sure enough. Ain’t no salvation out here.

Salvation?  Nope, ain’t no salvation out here.

Brix wondered what he’d gotten himself into. But no turning back now. He never quit a thing in his life, wasn’t about to quit this. Whatever happened, he’d see it through. Easiest thing in the world, quitting. He’d come across mean men before and he’d always stood his ground. Might be these were men the likes of which he’d never come across before. He’d find out.

By nightfall, they were camped at the foot of the mountains. With another day’s ride, they’d be in Laramie. Brix had questions but kept them to himself. He figured Twint would let him know what he needed to know.

One question he couldn’t keep to himself was how were they going to find these men?

We’ll find ‘em, Twint assured him. They don’t know it, but they want to be found. Runnin’ is the loneliest thing in the world. It’ll drive a man crazy.

But findin’ ‘em and gettin’ them caught is two different things.

Yep. Two different things. Once we find them, they get real brave cuz they’re desperate. They forget all about bein’ lonely. Now they’re caught up in the thrill of surviving. Men are like animals. They’ll do anything to survive. Don’t think about it, just do it.

Brix stared into the campfire, feeling the heat from the coffee on his face. What a life, out here in the middle of nowhere, chasing god knows what. He’d rather be doing the chasing than the other way around. But he wasn’t sure what was out there in the dark.

The next day they crossed the mountains on the stage road and dropped down into the hoodoos and on down into the long plains into Laramie. Twint wanted to talk to the sheriff to get any information he might have on the whereabouts of the men they were chasing.

The sheriff’s office stunk of vomit and piss and Brix told Twint he’d wait outside. As the sun slipped below the rim of plateaus to the west, Brix could feel the cold air rushing in off the mountains. He was looking forward to a hot meal and a warm bed. He’d spent most of his life sleeping on hard ground.

Grizzled ol’ sonuvabitch, Twint said stepping out next to Brix. Had a whole lot of nothin’ to say.

What’s up? Brix asked.

Didn’t bother him one way or the other. Says as long as they stayed away from here, he didn’t give a damn ‘bout ‘em. All he’d tell me is they held up the Overland Stage out near Bosler three days ago and they were long gone. Swan Land and Cattle Company put up the reward. The stage was carryin’ their payroll.

I heard of that outfit. These must be tough sombitches to mess with them. Where do we start? Lotta country out there.

First thing in the morning, we’ll head north. They have three days start on us, but I know ‘em, can think like ‘em, hell, can even smell ‘em when we’re close. They’ll be up in Medicine Bow country. You can bet on it. And we’ll find ‘em, can bet on that too.

At first light they were headed north toward Medicine Bow. Huddled inside their dusters, they rode through the cold Wyoming plains. Brix thought about the long days herding cattle from Texas to Kansas, the endless blur of short grass, cut earth, and sagebrush.

I got a sick feelin’ ‘bout this, Twint. How you so sure they came this way?

Told ya I have a sense ‘bout it. We’ll find ‘em. Count on it.

And then what? How you know they ain’t already been caught?

Look around, see anyone else?

Nope, don’t see a soul. But we ain’t found them yet.

The men we’re chasin’ killed the driver and two armed guards on the Overland Stage. Guards on the Overland are tough as they come. No one in his right mind will be chasin’ men who pulled that off. That’s a special kind of mean.

Brix looked hard at Twint.

Why ain’t Swan hands chasin’ ‘em?

They’re busy gatherin’ cattle this time of year. Nope, we’re it. Worried?

I ain’t worried ‘bout how mean they are, I just wanna find the bastards. We’re a special kind of mean ourselves, ain’t we? What I’m ‘fraid of is boredom. That’ll kill a man faster than anything.

One of them, eh? A seeker of adventure. I knew it the moment I laid eyes on you. A seeker. A hard case. Don’t fret, my friend, you won’t be bored long. Enjoy the quiet while you have it. Later, when we have to go in after these animals, all hell’l break loose. Count on it. I hope you know how to use that pistol.

Never had much need but don’t worry, I know how to use it.

Ain’t worried, just wonderin’ is all.

Brix thought about where they were going – and why? Questions every man faces in his life. They might not be worth thinking on, but they were there. Couldn’t ignore them.

You never asked about this patch over my eye.

Didn’t see a need to ask.

Might be it hinders my shootin’.

Might be. Guess if it did, you’d be in a different line of work.

It don’t case you’re wonderin’.

Ain’t wonderin’.

‘Sides, it ain’t how good you can shoot, it’s can you look death square in the face without turnin’ away? Killin’ a man has nuthin’ to do with skill at handlin’ a gun and everything to do with if you can. I don’t s’pose you ever had the need to do it before?

Can’t say I have. Don’t mean I can’t.

Twint nodded. No, don’t mean you can’t.

How did ya lose your eye?

Now that’s a interestin’ story. Got shot by none other than Butch Cassidy hisself. Not shot directly. I was peakin’ ‘round a rock I was hidin’ behind when a bullet hit so close to my head a sliver took my eye right out. Lucky didn’t take the whole side of my head off. Figured it had to be Butch, always was a damn straight shooter.

Even it if weren’t it’s a good story. I’d stick to it.

Aim to, Twint said.

They rode in silence a long time before Brix asked what had happened with the standoff with Butch Cassidy?

He’s one of ‘em that got away. Kind of glad he did. Don’t hurt to have our legends.

By nightfall they rode into Rock River. The stockyards next to the railroad were crowded with cattle waiting to be shipped to Omaha.

Those are Swan cattle, Twint said.

Brix imagined there’d be Swan cowboys in town. He didn’t care one way or another but a cowboy has a hankering to talk. It’s a lonely life and opportunities to mingle are rare. He was different, he knew. He didn’t fit in, never had, probably never would.

Think I’ll find a place out there, Brix said. Don’t much care to stay in town tonight.

Do what you’ve a mind to. Me, I’m gonna find a drink and a hot meal, Twint said.

I’ll find you in the mornin’.

Sure you don’t wanna join me? Might be our last chance.

There’ll be others.

Never know. But have it your way. I’ll see ya in the mornin’. We’re getting’ close, I smell it.

Brix nodded and rode a little way out of town to set up his camp along Rock Creek. From here, the bawling cattle settled his nerves. He loved the way sounds echoed across the darkness. In no time the water was boiling for coffee and he crowded close to the fire. Wasn’t much of a life, but it was all he knew.

Before the sun was up, Brix was out of his bedroll, stacking wood on the glowing embers. He stood close as he waited for the coffee to boil, listening to the rustling along the creek. Rusty was restless.

The hot coffee warmed his hands and his breath across the rim of the cup cut through the cold morning on the high plains of Wyoming. Life gave up its pleasures in handfuls.

After he found Twint, they were headed north. In the warmth of the bright fall morning and the burst of red and yellow along the creek beds, they rode in silence. No day was like any other. The breath of life.

By afternoon they were in Medicine Bow.

This is it, Twint said.

Brix looked around. What next?

They will be up there, Twint said, pointing to an outcrop about a mile north of town.

Brix didn’t know why but he trusted Twint. It was an unlikely place to hide but these were men he didn’t understand. Twint did.

How do we go about getting to ‘em? Brix asked.

First we get something to eat. We’ll circle in after dark. Have to come in from behind. I know the rocks and where they’ll have set up camp.

Brix nodded, his stomach churning. He felt the rumbling inside of him, the roar of life.

Dark. Under a sliver of moon. They rode east and then north to a cut in the far end of the outcrop and then north until they reached an opening in the rocks where they looked down on the large outcrop where Twint said the three men would be holed up. Brix inhaled and exhaled slowly. Life boiled down to this.

In the pale light Brix could just make out Twint’s crooked smile.

We’ll go in on foot so we need to go up a lil’ further to hobble the horses. Can’t have ‘em snortin’ and fussin’, give us away for sure.

They rode until they found a small outcrop of jagged rocks a quarter of a mile above the large outcrop and unsaddled and hobbled their horses, sliding their rifles from their scabbards.

These are dangerous men, Brix.

This was the first time Twint had addressed Brix by name and Brix strained under the dim light from the moon to show he understood. They were dangerous because they knew pain and accepted it. No one overcame pain, you either accept it – or let it defeat you. Now they faced their test.

They removed their spurs, checked their pistols and rifles, and started down the slope. A wisp of cloud passed over the slice of moon but even in darkness they could make out the outcrop ahead. As they approached Twint stopped, twisting his head to listen. He had told Brix he could hear the crackle of a fire a mile away. Brix wondered if it were true.

There was something though. Brix strained but heard nothing. But there was a hint of smoke. It was there and Brix touched Twint’s sleeve. Twint motioned Brix to move off to the east and Twint moved off in the opposite direction. Even though Brix questioned why Twint wanted to split up, Brix headed to the east rim of the outcrop, moving easily in the quiet of his solitude.

The voices came to Brix. Twint must have heard them too. He crouched trying to catch a glimpse of Twint’s location but saw nothing. He moved down the slope until he reached the outcrop. He would wait. The voices below were more distinct. It was time.

Brix squeezed through a small opening in the rock until he could see the men in the light of a campfire below. He couldn’t see Twint but knew he was there. He scrunched down, laying the barrel of his rifle along a flat rock. Once Twint opened up, he would follow suit. He looked hard, there were only two men below. The other one must have split off or was standing guard somewhere above, most likely watching the country to the south toward Medicine Bow.

The longer he looked, the more the men lost their identity as men and became targets, bringing a deep sadness to Brix. Twint had warned Brix that when it came time to face his uncertainty, he would have to face it – alone.

The shot startled Brix even though he knew it was coming. He sighted down his rifle barrel and fired off two shots at the two men scrambling below. He looked up, trying to locate them. They had scattered so quickly he couldn’t find them. Twint was on the move, trying to find a new angle. Brix backed away from the ledge and circled back to the outer edge of the rock outcrop. His breathing was heavy. They had lost their advantage.

Twint moved down the rock with abandon, unwilling to give up his edge. Like startled rats, the outlaws had scurried into the recesses of an alcove. Twint was in the opening now, moving along the edge of light from the campfire. A shot dusted his right foot and he dove to the ground, scrambling for cover inside a narrow opening in the rock wall. Another shot stung the wall above his head. He held his breath.

Brix hustled along the edge of rock trying to get a glimpse of Twint or the outlaws in the glow from the campfire. There was no movement and he took a deep breath. He continued down the edge of the outcrop, finding his way in the faint light from the sliver of moon. All of a sudden hoofbeats crashed through an opening in the south side of the rock outcrop. Brix rushed down the slope to get a better view. More horses thundered through the opening. Hugging the rocks, Brix moved toward the opening. Another shot rang out and Brix heard a gasp from inside. Was one of them hit?

Brix tried to stay calm. Everything had happened so suddenly, he couldn’t be sure if the outlaws had escaped. And where was the third one? Another shot. Someone was still inside.

Brix, Twint called out. One of ‘em is hit. I don’t know how bad. You close?

Brix eased along the rock wall to the opening and peered inside.

Yeah, I’m here.

The fire, dancing and leaping, cast an eerie shadow on the opposite wall. He couldn’t see any other movement. A heavy smell of fear mixed with the smoke. Brix thought about what Twint had said about an animal when it’s cornered, how it becomes mean. Whatever was inside now was mean.

There was a rush of movement across the dancing shadows on the rock wall and bursts from inside the alcove. Gunshots. How many Brix couldn’t be sure? Twint had rushed the alcove. Brix waited.

Twint, Brix called out. Twint.

There was no answer. Brix considered his options. Two, as he saw it, neither of them pretty.  Either rush the alcove or leave. Leaving wasn’t an option.

From inside the alcove Brix heard a scraping sound. Something was being dragged across the hard ground. A dead body? Or a man trying to save himself? He couldn’t be sure. He held his breath. Since Twint didn’t respond to his calls, he assumed Twint was dead or hurt bad.

Twint, Brix called again. He waited.

You out there? Your friend is dying in here. He needs help.

Brix waited.

You gonna help him?

And get shot? Not a chance.

You can’t just let him die. Tell ya what, you agree to leave after, I’ll let you come in and help your friend. And give you half the money.

I ain’t interested in the money.

What’re ya doin’ here then? If it ain’t ‘bout the money, just what in the fuck are ya doin’?

I was helpin’ my friend is all. If you throw your gun out, I’ll let ya go. You can keep your money.

How do I know I can trust you?

What choice do you have?

I can wait you out. Sit right here while your friend bleeds out. You’re the one in a tough spot, not me.

How do I know he’s still alive?

Trust me, he’s alive. But not for much longer.

Brix knew he needed to act but asked himself, what had happened to the other outlaws? He had heard from only one of them and he wasn’t about to come out. Even if Twint was already dead, Brix would have to go in to finish the job they started. He strained to see inside the alcove but there wasn’t enough light from the campfire. He would be rushing into the dark. His odds weren’t good. He remembered what Twint had told him. Killing a man ain’t easy. He wouldn’t have any trouble killing this man, and this man wouldn’t have any trouble killing him. Chances. It came down to this. Chances.

Brix took a deep breath and slipped as quietly as possible along the rock wall, staying out of the glow from the campfire. He approached the opening to the alcove away from the campfire. Cocking his pistol, he smiled. Dying ain’t so hard, not really. It’s the thinking about it that’s hard.

He rushed into the alcove. A gunshot rang out and he shot back and dove to the ground. He felt the warmth of the bullet that had torn through his shoulder. He fired twice more at the spot.

He heard a gurgling noise.

Damn. Damn. Ya didn’t have to do that. I’d of let ya come in. I told ya I’d of let ya come in. Why’d ya have to shoot me?

Brix scrambled to his feet and hurried back to the campfire. He lit a branch and walked back to the alcove. The glow from the torch lit up the inside of the alcove. Twint was lying on his side along the far wall and the outlaw was slumped against the rock wall closer to the opening, the hand holding his pistol splayed out next to him. His eyes were wide-open. On the other side of Twint, another man lay face down. Dead. Brix moved slowly toward Twint, holding his gun on the outlaw.

He’s dead, was dead all along. Didn’t give me a choice. He charged us.

Brix rolled Twint onto his back, the eye patch staring up at him. He reached down and placed Twint’s left hand on his chest, staring down at the missing finger.

No, don’t suppose he did give ya a choice. Twint was that way. He’d of never gave up.

I never did anythin’ to hurt you.

No, you never did anything to hurt us. Twint wouldn’t of seen it that way. He had this thing inside of him, this curiosity, this urge for ending things. Didn’t much matter to him how it ended, just needed to end. Saw that right away in him. Most men spend their whole life running from the end. Twint spent his running toward it.

What ya plan on doin’ now? The money’s in that bag. It’s yours. I ain’t got no use for it.

Brix thought about this for a moment.

How bad ya hurt?

Don’t know. Gutshot. Ain’t good. Need help pretty bad. There’s a doc down in Medicine Bow.

Brix moved closer, holding the torch. He tossed the outlaw’s gun away and bent down to take a closer look. His shirt was stained black from the blood and stuck to the skin.

Don’t know if you’d survive the trip to Medicine Bow. Guess we could give it a go. No promises. Be awful painful. What about the others?

Donner over there’s dead. You can see that yourself.

There was three of you?

I’m bettin’ Parker hightailed it outta here when the first shot was fired. He’s long gone.

Brix was quiet.

Who are you? the outlaw asked.

Ain’t nobody.

You must have a name?

Sure, I gotta name. Brix.

Nice to meet ya. My name’s Filson. Hey, Brix, you gotta cigarette?


Could sure use a smoke. Should be tobacco and papers in that bag. You mind lookin’?

Brix reached over and grabbed the saddlebags. There was money stuffed inside one side of the bag and a few rations in the other side. He fumbled through the rations, pulling out a tobacco pouch and papers. He set the torch down, slipped a paper out, opened the pouch with his teeth, dumped a small amount of tobacco onto the paper, licked one side, rolled it tight, lit it with the torch and handed it to Filson.


Filson inhaled and coughed.

A man never thinks about his last cigarette, Filson said.

Don’t guess so. A man never thinks ‘bout a lot a things.

We ain’t gonna make it to Medicine Bow, are we?

Don’t imagine so. Wish there was somethin’ I could do for you.

That’s all right. Guess I got what was comin’ to me. There’s no ‘vantage to this way of life. Knew it ‘fore I ever took it up. Thought I could beat the odds.

Ain’t no beatin’ the odds. None of us gets out alive.

True, but ain’t wrong to want one more day. Don’t realize how special life is ‘til it’s near over.

Ain’t wrong at all. It’s a helluva deal though. None of us asked to be here, and what do we get for it? Damn shame.

Filson took a long draw on his cigarette, exhaled, and closed his eyes.

Brix bent down to listen to Filson’s shallow breathing. Death was near. Brix put the torch down, stood up, pulled up the collar of his duster, reached down for the saddlebags, and walked out of the alcove to the campfire. The smoke stung his eyes and he turned his back to the fire.

He hadn’t known Twint long but felt he owed him something, but for the life of him, he didn’t know what. He had no way to bury him. Didn’t matter one way or the other. He thought about going back inside for Twint’s eye patch but the thought of seeing what was underneath sent a shiver down his spine.

Justice. A curious thing. Was this justice? What in hell did he know about justice? A man does his best. At least, this is what he tells himself. It’s hard to know what to do in this godforsaken country. Scratch out a living the best way he can. But it all ends the same.

Maybe Twint had finally reached the wide sky of the sea. And the other outlaw, the one that got away? He’d survived. For now.

Two of them dead, Twint dead, two alive. Five men. Five strangers who each played a hand in the lives and deaths of the others. None of them an animal. None of them mean like Twint said. Scared is all. Men same as him. Men trying to survive, sure, but men nonetheless.

For the first time, Brix felt the pain from the bullet wound in his shoulder. No time to think about it now. He’d sit here awhile with the fire and worry about his shoulder when the time came to worry. Staring into the fire now, Brix fell into a trance. The sparks danced upward into the black night. He shivered.

Twint had told him every man needs a purpose, but it didn’t seem that way to Brix. For the life of him, he couldn’t find a purpose in any of it.

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